When exploring the sale of your company, is it better to “deny, deny, deny” or employ a “don’t tell, don’t ask” policy?

The conundrum is, particularly if this is your first rodeo, how to keep the possibility that you’re analyzing a transaction under wraps until the pivotal elements of the deal are in place, including what it means to employees, key suppliers and ultimately your customers.

If you’re just thinking to yourself and playing out internal soliloquies of what might happen in your mind, there is no reason to tell a soul. However, as soon as you move to the next step, unless you’re prepared, your troubles are just beginning. 

Deciding to sell takes a huge cerebral investment in one-on-ones with yourself. Once you’ve gotten off the dime and aggressively started scrutinizing this exit avenue, it’s time to create a staged communications plan that outlines whom are you going to tell what, when and how much. The biggest mistake is hubris in thinking you can singularly balance this exploration while running your organization and not confiding in anyone. There are few effective jugglers who can succeed on a solitary basis — and they're usually found under a circus tent. Running your business is already more than a full-time job. Adding to that the roles of dealmaker/negotiator will most likely mean that you’ll drop some of the balls in your new multifaceted act.

Once you’ve finally pushed the start button, the next step is to bring your attorney, accountant and significant other under your cone of silence. The latter is to avoid angst and suspicion when you start receiving late-night phone calls and veiled messages that might be misinterpreted by your non-business partner. As the process progresses, advising key executives is mandatory, as they have not just fallen off a turnip truck, and they will quickly pick up on the tell-tale signs that something big is in the works. Flat out denying suspicions of such exploration will cause you to lose credibility when it’s discovered that you overtly put up illusionary strawmen as a ruse. And, if you employ a “don’t tell”, underscored by “don’t ask” policy, you’ll find yourself in peril of being branded an equivocator. 

Be prepared to make promises to each group you tell and, at the very least, outline various scenarios if a deal is consummated. Most of all people, want to know that you’re thinking of them and how it will affect their lives. Just telling people that you’ll work it out is a non-starter. You must be prepared to outline to associates what’s in it for them if this deal is completed and how they will be taken care of by the company or its successor.

An investment banker can help with much of the preliminaries with a potential buyer, including research, due diligence and provide a sanity check on all aspects of the transaction, including the all-important communications strategy.

Denying or going to radio silence doesn’t work. Just ask any politician or public figure who’s been there and done that only to see their dubious absence of being forthright exposed by the media for all to know.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax, and in 16 years as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder and CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses. Feuer serves on numerous boards and is a frequent national speaker and the author of business books “The Benevolent Dictator” and ”Tips from the Top.”

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